Jim Sterling’s Fantabulous Bucket List: Gitaroo Man

Very few games can come close to being considered perfect, but then, very few games have ever been like Gitaroo Man. It almost defies belief that Koei, famed publisher of the endlessly exploited Dynasty Warriors series, would have a game so bizarre, inventive, and downright original as Gitaroo Man.

In case you haven’t heard of this game (and shame on you, sir), it’s an unapologetically Japanese music game, back when music games didn’t need clacky plastic guitars in order to be considered legit. It’s a science fiction love story featuring a boy called U-1 who comes into possession of a magical space guitar that’s also a weapon and has the power to turn him into the heroic Gitaroo Man. With his newfound power, U-1 and his faithful dog Puma must take on the evil Gravilian army, defeat an evil dictator called Zowie, and win the affections of his secret lust fantasy, Little Pico.

Each battle pits Gitaroo Man against an eccentric Gravillian, and takes on the form of an epic musical duel from a varied list of genres. Classic rock, reggae and even salsa are explored in the game, with all music provided by COIL. Unique to Gitaroo Man is the control method. Players need to move the control stick so it travels along a predetermined course while pressing the face button at precisely the right moment.

The first stage of a battle is the Charge Phase, where playing the music perfectly fills up Gitaroo Man’s health bar. Once the characters have charged, the Battle Phase begins. Battles alternate between attack and defense, where attacking uses the aforementioned stick + button input, and defense is a more traditional, but very fast paced and difficult, series of timed button mashes. If players survive the back-and-forth battle, they get to finish the enemy off with a Harmony Phase, ending the fight in an intense crescendo.

One of the most notable aspects of the game was how the music can change depending on the way the battle goes. Extra phases, and sometimes completely new versions of tracks appear during each stage, making replays feel more varied and dynamic. It helps that the music is absolutely fantastic as well.

The game’s inherent weirdness also helps to make the game so endearing. The story is disjointed, bizarre and delivered by incredibly strange voice actors who seem to struggle to fit their lines into the fast-paced cutscenes. The enemies are completely eccentric, ranging from a trio of skeletons to a campy narcissistic organ player to the legendary Mojo King Bee. The disjointed story, abstract art style and thoroughly Japanese flavor throughout makes this one of the oddest games that the PlayStation 2 has ever seen, and that’s saying quite a bit.

Unfortunately, despite its cult popularity, Gitaroo Man never sold that many copies and is, in fact, increasingly difficult to get a hold of now. Even the PSP re-release can be tricky to locate, especially in North America, and you can expect it to fetch a pretty price wherever it goes. Tecmo Koei has never hinted that the game will get a digital re-release, but I certainly hope it does. Everybody deserves to play this game at least once, but more importantly, this game deserves to be played by everybody.